Nvidia founder and CEO Jensen Huang: run for food or run from becoming food

Judy Lin, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0

Jensen Huang, the founder and CEO of GPU company Nvidia, encouraged students to be agile for the opportunities brought by the AI revolution, to have the humility to admit failure and ask for help as well as to endure the needed pain and sacrifice for realizing their dreams in his commencement speech at National Taiwan University (NTU) on May 27 in Taipei.

Huang received a heroic welcome from thousands of graduates and their families upon entering the stadium. Huang told three Nvidia stories, including how Nvidia survived from a painful failure, and how, by taking a strategic retreat, it gained an early mover's advantage to succeed in the artificial intelligence (AI) era. Huang, who was born and spent his early childhood in Taiwan's southern city of Tainan, gave the audience a pleasant surprise by greeting them in both Taiwanese dialect and Mandarin.

He emphasized that we are still at the starting line of the AI revolution, and predicted that within the next decade, the industry will enjoy golden opportunities valued at over a trillion dollars as the world replaces traditional computers with new accelerated AI computers.

Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang's commencement speech transcript:

Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed faculty members, distinguished guests, proud parents. And above all, the 2023 graduating class of National Taiwan University:

Today is a very special day for you, a dream come true for your parents. You should be moving out soon. It is surely a day of pride and joy. Your parents have made sacrifices to see you on this day. My parents and my brother are also here. Let's show all of our grandparents, many of them are here, our appreciation.

I came to NTU for the first time over a decade ago. Dr. Chang invited me to visit his computational physics lab. As I recall, his son, based in Silicon Valley, learned of Nvidia's CUDA invention and recommended his father utilize it for his quantum physics simulations. When I arrived, he opened the door to show me what he had made. NVIDIA GeForce gaming cards filled the room, plugged into open PC motherboards. Dr. Chang had built a pure homemade supercomputer, the Taiwanese way, out of gaming graphics cards. And he started an early example of Nvidia Journey. And he said to me, "Mr. Huang, because of your work, I can do my life's work in my lifetime." Those words touched me to this day, and perfectly captured our company's purpose. Our company's purpose helps the Einsteins and DaVincis of our time do their life's work. I am so happy to be back at NTU, so happy to be back at your commencement address.

The world was simpler in Oregon when I graduated from Oregon State University. TVs were not flat yet. There was no cable television or MTV. And the words "mobile" and "phone" didn't go together.

The year was 1984, the IBM PC and Apple Macintosh launched the PC revolution and started the software industry that we know today. You enter a far more complex world with geopolitical and social changes, and environmental changes and challenges. Surrounded by technology, we are now perpetually connected and immersed in a digital world that parallels the real world. Cars are starting to drive by themselves. Forty years after the computer industry created the home PC, we invented artificial intelligence. Like software that automatically drives a car, or studies X-ray images, AI software has opened the doors to computers to automate tasks for the world's largest multi-trillion-dollar industries: health care, financial services transportation, and manufacturing.

AI has opened immense opportunities; agile companies will take advantage of AI and boost their position. Companies less so will perish. Entrepreneurs, many of them here today, will start new companies, and like in every computing era before, create new industries. AI will create new jobs that didn't exist before, like data engineering, prompt engineering, AI factory operation, and AI safety engineers. These are jobs that never existed before. Automated tasks will obsolete some jobs. And for sure, AI will change every job, supercharging the performance of programmers, designers, artists, and manufacturing planners.

Just as every generation before you embraced technologies, every company and you must learn to take advantage of AI, and do amazing things AI copilot by your side. While some worry that AI may take their jobs, someone who is an expert with AI will. We are at the beginning of a major technology revolution, like PC, Internet, mobile, and cloud. And AI is far more fundamental because every computing layer has been reinvented from how we write software to how it's processed. AI has reinvented computing from the ground up.

In every way, this is a rebirth of the computer industry and a golden opportunity for companies of Taiwan. You are the foundation and bedrock of the computer industry. Within the next decade, our industry will replace over a trillion dollars of the world's traditional computers with new accelerated AI computers.

My journey started 40 years before yours. 1984 was a perfect year to graduate. I predict that 2023 will be as well. What can I tell you as you begin your journey? Today is the most successful day of your life so far. You're graduating from the National Taiwan University. I was also successful until I started Nvidia. I experienced failures. Great big ones, all humiliating and embarrassing. Many nearly doomed us. Let me tell you three Nvidia stories that defined us today.

Almost out of businesses

We founded Nvidia to create accelerated computing. Our first application was 3D graphics for PC gaming. We invented an unconventional 3D approach called forward texture mapping and curves. Our approach was at a substantially lower cost. We won a contract with Sega to build their game console which attracted games for our platform and funded our company.

After one year of development, we realized our architecture was the wrong strategy. It was technically poor and Microsoft was about to announce Windows 95 3D based on inverse texture mapping and triangles. Many companies were already working on 3D chips to support the standard. If we completed Sega's game console, we would have built inferior technology, be incompatible with Windows, and be too far behind to catch up. But we would be out of money if we didn't finish the contract. Either way, we would be out of business.

I contacted the CEO of Sega and explained that our invention was the wrong approach that Sega should find another partner, that we could not complete the contract and the console. We had to stop. But I needed Sega to pay us or Nvidia would be out of business. I was embarrassed to ask. Irimajiri-san, the CEO of Sega, to his credit and my amazement, agreed. His understanding and generosity gave us six months to live. With that, we built Riva 128 just as we were running out of money. The Riva 128 shocked the young 3D market, put us on the map, and saved the company. Strong demand for our chip led me back to Taiwan, after leaving at the age of 4, to meet Morris Chang at TSMC and start a partnership that has lasted 25 years.

Confronting our mistake, and, with humility, asking for help, saved Nvidia. These traits are the hardest for the brightest and most successful like yourself.

The legend of CUDA

In 2007, we announced CUDA GPU accelerated computing. Our aspiration was for CUDA to become a programming model that boosts applications from scientific computing, to physics simulations and image processing. Creating a new computing model is incredibly hard and rarely done in history. The CPU computing model has been standard for 60 years since the IBM System 360. CUDA needed developers to write out applications and to demonstrate the benefits of the GPU. Developers needed a large installed base, and a large CUDA installed base needed customers buying new applications. So to solve the chicken or egg problem, we used GeForce GPU, our gaming GPU, which already had a large market of gamers, to build the installed base.

But the added cost of CUDA was very high. Nvidia's profits took a huge hit. For many years, our market cap hovered just below - just above - $1 billion. We suffered for many years. Our shareholders were skeptical of CUDA and preferred we focused on improving profitability. But we persevered. We believed the time for accelerated computing would come. We created a conference called GTC and promoted CUDA tirelessly worldwide.

Then, the applications came: seismic processing, CT reconstruction, molecular dynamics, particle physics, fluid dynamics, and image processing. One science domain after another, they came. We've worked with each developer to write their algorithms and achieved incredible speed-ups. Then, in 2012, AI researchers discovered CUDA. The famous AlexNet, trained on GeForce GTX 580, started the Big Bang of AI.

Fortunately, we realized the potential of deep learning as a whole new software approach and turned every aspect of our company to advance this new field. We risked everything to pursue deep learning. A decade later, the AI revolution started. Nvidia is the engine of AI developers worldwide. We invented CUDA and pioneered accelerated computing and AI. But the journey forged our corporate character to endure the pain and suffering that is always needed to realize a vision.

Strategic retreat from phone market

One more story. In 2010, Google aimed to develop Android into a mobile computer with excellent graphics. The phone industry had chip companies with modem expertise and Nvidia's computing and graphics expertise made us an ideal partner to help build Android. And so we entered the mobile chip market. We were instantly successful and our business and stock price surged. The competition quickly swarmed. Modem chip makers were learning how to build computer chips, and we were learning how to build modems. The phone market is huge. We could fight for share. Instead, we made a hard decision, and we sacrificed the market. Nvidia's mission is to build computers that solve problems that ordinary computers cannot. We should dedicate ourselves to realizing our vision and to making a unique contribution. Our strategic retreat paid off. By leaving the phone market, we opened our minds to invent a new one. We imagined creating a new type of computer for robotic computerswith neural network processors and safety architectures that run AI algorithms.

We entered the robotics market and we now have billions of dollars of automotive and robotics business, and starting a new industry. Retreat does not come easily to the brightest and most successful people like yourselves. And yet, strategic retreat and sacrifice, deciding what to give up, is at the core, the very core, of success. Class of 2023, you're about to go into a world witnessing great change. And just as I was with the PC and chip revolution, you are at beginning, at the starting line, of AI. Every industry will be revolutionized. Ready for new ideas: your ideas. In 40 years, we created the PC, the Internet, mobile, cloud, and now the AI era. What will you create? Whatever it is, run after it like we did. Run. Don't walk. Remember: either you're running for food or you are running from being food.

(In Chinese: I hope this part can be translated into Chinese so that everyone can understand). Either you're running from food, or you are running from becoming food!

And oftentimes, you can't tell which. Either way, run. And for your journey, take along some of my learnings, that you will have the humility to confront failure, admit a mistake, and ask for help. You will endure pain and suffering needed to realize your dreams. And you will make sacrifices to dedicate yourself to a life of purpose and doing your life's work. Class of 2023, I extend my heartfelt congratulations to each one of you!

(In Chinese: Go for it!)

Jensen Huang, founder and CEO of Nvidia

Jensen Huang, founder and CEO of Nvidia at National Taiwan Univ graduation ceremony.